The Happiness Prayer

Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today


By Evan Moffic

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At age 30 Evan Moffic became the leader of a large congregation. He had great success. But he couldn’t find happiness. Then he found a 2000-year-old prayer. In it were hidden elements of Jewish wisdom. They became a part of his life and those of his congregation and transformed them and him.

What if we had a clear path to follow when life disappointed us? What if we had a time-tested guide for a life of deeper meaning and happiness? That is what Rabbi Moffic discovered in an ancient Jewish prayer.

Based on ten practices any person can follow, the prayer has helped thousands of people-couples, teenagers, empty nesters struggling with loss, divorce, and ruptured relationships-find renewed meaning and purpose in their lives.

Moffic discovered the power of the prayer when he was called to become the youngest rabbi to lead a large US synagogue at just thirty years of age. The prayer became his guidepost, providing him with the wisdom to lead beyond his years. By incorporating the power of this prayer into his life and using it to guide his congregation and community, he became known as “the smiling rabbi.”

In the tradition of Rabbi Harold Kushner, Rabbi Evan Moffic opens up the Jewish wisdom tradition with insights for today. Drawing from interactions with thousands of congregants, as well as his own experience; relating stories of real people; providing accessible commentary from contemporary psychologists; and sprinkling in warm humor, this rabbi of a new generation reveals the means and meaning of joyous living that will appeal to everyone.


The Smiling Rabbi

A few years ago my friend started a ritual in her home. When she got home from work, she would ask her two kids the following: “On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your day?” The first time she did it, the oldest daughter thought for a while. Then she answered, “6.125.” She recounted what her teachers and friends had said to her, what she’d learned, whom she’d sat with at lunch, and how she had been late for dance practice. Delivering the answer took about five minutes.

The second daughter responded with a question. “What is the highest, Mom?” “Ten.” “Well,” she said with a smile, “it was a ten!” Then she skipped out of the room.

Some of us seem wired for happiness. We make smiley faces on our papers. We see a glass half-full. We answer the phone with a cheerful hello. Others of us are more like the older daughter. We evaluate every conversation. We always imagine what might go wrong in an upcoming meeting. We look up at the sky and see the clouds.

Which one are you? Do you tend to look for the good? Or do you worry about what might go wrong? This book will give you a clearer picture of yourself. It will also give you a path for uncovering a deeper happiness—a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. It will do so by exposing you to the words of a special Hebrew prayer called Eilu Devarim (pronounced ay-lu deh-var-eem). The name means “These are the words.” It was written two thousand years ago and consists of ten short verses. It has been a part of Jewish worship for several hundred years, and I have been saying it every morning for most of my life.

I discovered its real power, though, during a painful time. I had gone through most of life with the attitude of my friend’s younger daughter. I had loving parents. I’d studied at my dream college. I’d found my ideal calling as a rabbi. Most days had been tens. My wife had said my constant smiles were the thing that most attracted her. Sure, there had been setbacks, but even those had seemed to lead ultimately to something better.

Then age thirty brought the opportunity of a lifetime. I became the lead rabbi of a large and historic congregation. I felt lucky and blessed, and I knew I could help the community do amazing things. But the initial excitement quickly turned into a recognition of the reality of my new situation. Two thousand people turned to me for help with the pains and tragedies of life—broken marriages, problems with their children, the deaths of parents and grandparents, and much more. In my earlier positions, I’d always had a backup. Now I was supposed to have all the answers. Did I really have what it took? Did I have enough experience and empathy to help with life-and-death choices? Judaism rarely offers easy answers to hard questions. It is a faith that values debate and struggle over dogma and certainty. I wondered whether I could really guide the congregation looking to me for wisdom and truth.

I also lost a close friend—a medical resident with everything going for him—to suicide. My wife and I had just had a baby, and it had not been an easy pregnancy. Our oldest child had medical problems. Nothing was the way it was supposed to be. The happy rabbi—the one whose parents had given him a “What, Me Worry?” sign for his office—questioned his calling and his faith.

Through these painful times, the words of the Eilu Devarim prayer took on new meaning. I realized the words I was saying were not directed only toward God; I was also saying them to myself. And the prayer saved me. It gave me a new perspective. It infused vitality into my leadership and family. It renewed in me the joy of learning and teaching and serving as a moral and spiritual guide. People now call me “the smiling rabbi.”

The prayer did not always reveal easy answers. But it became a compass pointing me back in the right direction. It can do the same for you. It works whether you are Jewish or not, religious or not. It works not because you get some magical feeling after saying it. It works because of the truths and practices it reveals. It works because you bring its teachings into your life. It is not a typical prayer in that you just say it. It is an active prayer because you live it. The magic is not in the words. It is in the way you use the words to change yourself.

The prayer also works because it illuminates a new approach toward happiness. The modern English word happiness comes from the Middle English hap, as in happenstance and haphazard. The origin suggests that a happy life is a result of randomness and luck. The Hebrew word for happiness—simcha—demands intention. It comes from an intentional pursuit of joy amid community. That difference suggests that finding happiness is a choice. It is a choice available to all of us. Happiness is not a destination. It is the path itself. That’s what we find revealed in the Eilu Devarim prayer, along with much else. The prayer doesn’t only get us through hard times. Its lessons sustain us through life.

Perhaps you have lost a loved one, gone through a divorce, or lost a job. Perhaps you are struggling to forgive someone who hurt you. Perhaps you feel you are missing your sense of purpose, and life seems to be passing you by. Perhaps you are just overwhelmed with all that life throws at you. You may be asking yourself if you will ever find happiness. I have been there—as a person, and as a rabbi in the trenches of life with my congregation. And I have discovered that everyone can find happiness because happiness is not a thing. It is a way of life. Each of us can discover meaning in our struggles, our choices, and our achievements. Each of us can sustain that meaning through ongoing practices. This discovery is not instant. But it is within our reach. This prayer clears the way for us. It gets us back on the road to happiness.

The Structure

The prayer begins with a statement of its purpose. It uses a financial metaphor. Our actions represent an investment of our time. The interest on this investment is our happiness. Like financial interest, it compounds. In other words, the longer we follow these lessons, the more our happiness grows.

Here is my paraphrase of the Hebrew original of the prayer.

How will you find happiness in this world and peace in the world to come? By learning these wisdom practices from your ancestors:

Honor those who gave you life

Be kind

Keep learning

Invite others into your life

Be there when others need you

Celebrate good times

Support yourself and others during times of loss

Pray with intention


Look inside and commit

You are the hero of this book because you can take action today. You can listen for and act on the truths captured in this prayer, even just one of them. Each chapter will reveal ways I have learned and acted on these truths, and ways in which they have changed the lives of those I teach and lead. These stories will not only guide you in living these truths. You will also get a clear and inspiring understanding of why they work. We are human beings, not robots. Knowing our why will keep us more committed and engaged. There will be times when we fail. There will be times when we lose confidence. Knowing the why keeps us going. In other words, the more you understand where these wisdom practices come from and the ways in which they guide our lives, the happier you can be.

Each chapter will also give you an inside look at the writings of the Jewish sages who formulated this wisdom tradition and sustained it over thousands of years. Many of their insights have also found expression in psychology, social work, spirituality, counseling, and much more, but you will grasp the core insights into human nature that began it all. You are about to begin a journey that will change the way you look at your life.

Real Happiness Matters Now More than Ever

It’s time to focus on this journey to real happiness because so much distracts us from getting there. A recent study found that every day we encounter more than three thousand commercials. They come on TV, on billboards, on the radio, on YouTube videos. And they all have the same message. Something is making you unhappy. You deserve to be happy. We have a product to make you happy. Buy it from us now.

The only problem is that all our possessions and all our purchasing fail to make us happy. We have more stuff today than ever. But we are not any happier. We are more anxious and on edge. We are more uncertain about the future. We feel more distant from the values and practices that once gave clarity to life. A 2016 survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that only one in three Americans reports feeling very happy with their life, and Generation Y (those born between 1980 and 2000) are the “most stressed generation.”

We know life should not be this way. But we cope with it by escaping to food, to addictions, or to unhealthy relationships. We blame others. Or we just give up. We put up with jobs that make us miserable. We decide life is unfair.

The Eilu Devarim prayer reminds us there is another way. I call it a prayer because we recite and sing it during a worship service, but it is really a list of truths. These truths, as we will see, came out of the struggle of the Jewish community. The rabbis who wrote them down two thousand years ago faced centuries of persecution from the Roman Empire. The Jews were a beleaguered people who had to teach their wisdom in secret. They knew that the survival of their way of life depended on their ability to pass it on to their children. They needed to build strong communities and help each other cope with and thrive in an anxious and ever-changing world.

Their challenges are also our challenges. Yes, we enjoy many more things and greater political freedom than they did, but we still yearn to find meaning and purpose in a rapidly changing world. We still seek real happiness in a world filled with distraction and frustration. Our technologies have changed. Our dreams have not. That’s why Eilu Devarim offers great wisdom. That’s why it can transform your life.

You have before you not only a happiness prayer, but a checklist for a meaningful life. It has been tested over the last two thousand years. If you can do what it says, you will be happier—perhaps happier than you have ever thought possible.

What the Chicago Cubs Taught Me about Happiness

“All of life is a challenge of not being distracted from the greatness that we are.”

—Rabbi Yitzhak Kirzner

I’m a Chicagoan. While my dad grew up on the city’s South Side and roots for the Chicago White Sox, I lead a congregation on the city’s North Side and root for the Chicago Cubs. The White Sox won the World Series in 2005. When I started serving my current congregation, the Cubs had not won a world series since 1908.

Something big happened in 2011. The team’s leaders recognized it needed a change. They hired a president of baseball operations by the name of Theo Epstein. In 2004, Epstein had led the Boston Red Sox to their first championship in eighty-six years. He had done so by embracing a certain philosophy of management.

The philosophy focuses on improving the fundamentals that many overlook. It involves focusing on on-base percentage rather than batting average, taking pitchers out of a game after they have thrown a set number of pitches, and recruiting players based on slugging percentage rather than number of home runs. Epstein focused consistently on these fundamentals, whether or not they seemed right for a particular game or season.

During the first few years after he was hired, the Cubs did not improve. Our record remained among the worst in the league. Fans remained despondent. Some wanted to give up on this new plan. Epstein and his defenders responded, in essence, that they were not focused on winning. They were focused on doing the concrete things he had promised. Winning would be a by-product of doing those little things right.

Well, in 2015 things started to change. We had an excellent record. We made it to the division championship. In 2016, just as I was completing this book, we won the World Series for the first time in 108 years! What Epstein had said throughout the first few years now seems prophetic. Winning does not come from hiring the biggest superstar hitter. It doesn’t come from drafting the hottest pitcher in the league. It comes from doing certain things faithfully and consistently.

This insight applies not only to baseball. It rings true in our most important pursuit: the pursuit of a happy, satisfying, and meaningful life. Happiness is not something you can get by buying a fast, expensive car. It doesn’t come, as I learned, from getting the job you always dreamed of. It does not even come from health or wealth. It comes, like winning in baseball, from doing certain things faithfully and consistently. These practices sustain us through the inevitable pains and downturns of life. What they are—and how each of us can do them—is what we are about to discover.

How to Start

We’re not the first generation to seek happiness. The quest for happiness is actually as old as Western civilization. The Greek philosopher Socrates defined the point of life as finding happiness. The last two decades, however, have seen researchers make extraordinary strides in understanding what exact practices make for a happier life. Those practices range from cultivating meaningful relationships to living in the right kind of community (like Denmark, the happiest nation on earth) to daily journaling. All of these activities have merit. But before we analyze them, we have to answer the first challenge. How do we get in the right mind-set? How do we commit ourselves to doing the right things? See, we often know the right thing to do. But how do we get ourselves to do it?

Well, like the Chicago Cubs, we need an adjustment. Even though our problem—how to make choices that make us happier—has been around for centuries, we need a new approach to addressing it. We can’t simply try the latest workout system or the newest form of meditation. We can’t simply travel to the hottest new destination or read the most recent life-changing book. We need an approach rooted in ancient wisdom.

Put simply, we need faith. At its core, faith is the belief that life has meaning. It is the confidence that we are here on this earth for a reason. Faith is not about grand theological ideas. It is about the everyday choices we make. It is about becoming a person whose life makes a real, positive difference to the people around them. I learned this lesson from my parents and grandparents. But I also saw it in my spiritual home—the synagogue. When I was growing up, my mom brought me to synagogue every Friday night. She sang in the choir. I usually sat and played games.

But one Friday evening I started talking to an older man. His name was Dave Miller. He was a widower. Before retiring he had owned a costume showroom that outfitted the actors at almost all the local theaters. He had an infectious smile. He constantly cracked jokes, most of which were about the length of the rabbi’s sermons. We had a game where he would nudge me every time he thought the sermon should conclude. Once he nudged me eighteen times and took a short nap in the middle of that same sermon!

Dave was not rich. He did not have a large family. Yet he was the happiest person I ever met. I asked him what made him so happy. How did he sustain his optimism and joy? He told me a story.

His wife, Effie, had been diagnosed with rheumatic fever in her late twenties. The diagnosis came shortly before the vaccine for the fever was released. It was a gradually debilitating illness. Doctors told her she would likely die in her early fifties. She lived, however, into her late sixties.

The diagnosis brought Dave’s life into perspective. He made each day with his wife and daughter count because he did not know how many days they would have together. They made the synagogue their second home. He went every Friday night with Effie to worship. They made friends during the fellowship hour. They sang and got inspired during prayer. They learned in enrichment classes.

When Effie entered the hospital for the last time, she was never alone. Members of the synagogue constantly came to visit. They brought over meals for Dave. One friend even came and blew the shofar (ram’s horn) for the Jewish New Year. When she died, the community filled the sanctuary for her funeral service. They told Dave what she’d meant to them. They told him how lucky they felt to have been able to be there with the two of them through her illness and death.

Dave told me that he would not be alive had it not been for this community. They were people he could count on. And he wanted to be that kind of person. Since he knew the fragility of life, he determined to continue to live each day to the fullest. Effie’s death, for him, was about much more than burying and losing her. It was, he told me, an affirmation of life—an affirmation that a life well lived is the greatest gift God offers us.

Dave died during my second year of rabbinical school. I delivered a eulogy at his funeral, and doing so reminded me of why I was becoming a rabbi. I was learning so much about Jewish legal codes, biblical grammar, and the finer points of theology. But what really mattered, I said to myself as I wrote the eulogy, was the way faith enhances our lives. In other words, faith is not only about what we believe, but also about how we live. Dave was an example of the deep link between faith and happiness.

I ended the eulogy with a quote from Jonathan Sacks, then the chief rabbi of Great Britain. It encapsulates the depth of that link. “Happiness,” he said, “is the ability to look back on a life and say: I lived for certain values. I acted on them and was willing to make sacrifices for them. I was part of a family, embracing it and being embraced by it in return. I was a good neighbor, ready to help when needed. I was part of a community, honoring its traditions, participating in its life, sharing its obligations. It is these things that make up happiness in this uncertain world.” At its best, faith invites each of us to such a life.

Why Faith Has Worked for Five Thousand Years

I didn’t learn of this connection between faith and happiness in seminary. But the evidence for it is not just anecdotal. Research shows that faith is often a critical component of a meaningful and happy life. As Barbara Fredrickson, a leading social psychology scholar, puts it, “Religious practices help people find positive meaning in life, which elicits positive emotions, which in turn broadens the mind and increases personal resources, leading to improved health and well-being.” In other words, practices motivated by faith work. Faith is commitment to these practices and the repetition of them. This commitment plus repetition helps us develop the critical character traits and emotional experiences that make for a healthier and happier life. Happiness is a by-product of faith. Before we figure out what this means for us, we need to make an important clarification. Faith and religion are not the same thing. Religion is the organized expression and framework for acting upon our faith. Faith is universal, whereas religion is particular. Faith is like love. Religion is the relationship through which we express that love. Faith is poetry. Religion is prose. Faith is the encounter with God. Religion is the behavior through which we embrace the lessons from that encounter. Faith centers on the individual. Religion focuses on the group. You can have faith without being religious. It is more difficult to be religious without faith. The two are linked, but they are not the same.

When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, we learn from them both. Faith is the universal feeling of connection to something larger. Finding ways to cultivate that feeling is essential to the pursuit of happiness. But faith alone is also incomplete. We need the specific practices and behaviors taught within religious systems. I am a rabbi; my religion is Judaism and the practices I follow flow from the texts and traditions held sacred by the Jewish people. This book flows from wisdom I find within a prayer central to Jewish tradition. But the behaviors it teaches are available to all. No one religion is the sole path to happiness. That’s because of what underlies each religion’s particular behaviors: commitment.

Much of the power of religion comes in its focus on commitment. We follow certain practices because we have committed ourselves to doing so. We do not give to charity, show up for worship, or fast on certain days just because they are nice things to do. We do them because we have voluntarily chosen to live by a set of commitments. It is like getting married. In Western society we generally choose whether we get married and to whom. But once we enter into that marriage, we are bound by commitments that flow from it. If we had no feeling of commitment, there would be little trust or security in the relationship. We would be valuing short-term pleasure over long-term satisfaction. That’s why we choose commitments. They lead to a more lasting sense of comfort and well-being.

Changing Our Mind-Set

Happiness is a by-product of living by our commitments to our faith. We do not often think of faith, though, in this way. We tend to think committing to faith gets us a ticket into heaven. We tend to think of it as being about making God happy. But these commitments aren’t only about making God happy. They ultimately make us happy. They reveal the path to true meaning and satisfaction in life. Long ago faith hewed a path for us, one that has been well trod over thousands of years. And in walking down that path, we have a time-tested guide in our prayer.

And we also have a contemporary guide in the academic discipline of positive psychology. I discovered this school of thought when trying to figure out better ways to guide my congregation. The struggles they faced were often not the ones depicted in the Bible and the texts I’d studied in seminary. Yes, the Bible has wisdom about marriage and death and difficulties with parents and children. But the Bible came into being in a different world. In the past, many accepted its absolute truth.

We do not live in such a world. We seek the proof of science and experience. Thus the discipline of positive psychology—also known as the science of happiness—became an important source for me and my congregation in understanding our prayer. But it did something more than that. It gave me a better appreciation of the true power of faith. It revealed to me the mind-set we need to let the prayer work its magic. The mind-set is a trust in the power of ancient traditions and practices. It is a commitment to the wisdom of the past for the sake of the future.

On a practical level, the faith mind-set pushes us to do some things that may not feel great in the short term, but that enhance our lives in the long term. It is like a built-in Theo Epstein to help guide our choices and actions. These are the choices that we can look back on a year later and feel happy to have made. To take a simple example: I fast every year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. To do so is a commandment found in the Bible and has been a Jewish tradition for more than four thousand years. Since I am working all day—delivering sermons and leading my congregation in eight hours of prayer—fasting is the last thing I want to do. Yet it enhances my experience of the day and my connection to others. It does not feel right at the moment. But I look back and know I experienced the power of the day.

This is the kind of commitment faith has always nurtured, and ignoring the role of faith in the search for happiness is like going to search for a treasure and throwing away an old map leading directly to it. Faith brings happiness.

Don’t take my word for it. Look at the studies of people who have found an authentic life of faith. They live, on average, seven years longer than others. They have more friends. They give more to charity. They are healthier. All of this has been shown by a new science—the study of positive psychology—that gives proof for some of the truths and practices faith teaches.

The Science of Happiness

Positive psychology did not start out to prove the wisdom of our faith traditions. Rather, it began in the early 1990s, when a psychology professor named Martin Seligman started writing about and researching the practices and habits of happy people. He ultimately developed a model whereby our answers to particular questions can help us see where we are succeeding and not succeeding in the pursuit of happiness. The five categories in the model are positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (PERMA). Our prayer, as we will see, leads to all of them.


  • "Spiritual wisdom meets positive psychology, showing that the examined life is not an unhappy one."—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take, and coauthor of Option B
  • "I wish that every Christian I know could sit around a table with Rabbi Moffic and his wife, Ari-also a rabbi. My husband, Aaron, and I have treasured the time we've spent around the table with them-they're wise and kind and funny, and the depth and richness of their faith bleeds into every conversation." —Shauna Niequist, bestselling author
  • "One of our truly thoughtful and charismatic young leaders, Evan Moffic provides in captivating prose the wisdom and comfort of Jewish teachings for Jews and Gentile alike." —David Ellenson, Chancellor of the Hebrew Union College
  • "Rabbi Moffic makes Judaism relevant to our daily lives. He inspires us to view ethical values through an inclusive and universal lens encouraging us to find acceptance, joy, and happiness in everything we do."—Jason Brown, Olympic figure skater
  • "With sensitivity and insight, Rabbi Evan Moffic offers ancient wisdom to give us meaning and mooring amidst the challenges of our daily lives."—Rabbi David Stern
  • "A much needed reminder - in a culture of seeking - that happiness can be a return to something ancient; Evan Moffic's insights and humanity fill the pages of THE HAPPINESS PRAYER, shining beauty and affirmation on the wisdom of a 2000-year-old prayer, and making it accessible to anyone yearning for a more meaningful life."—Dan Ain, founder of "Because Jewish" and former Rabbi in Residence at 92Y
  • "Rabbi Evan Moffic masterfully invokes ancient Jewish wisdom to help us find happiness in our modern world."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, author of New York Times bestseller Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment
  • "Rabbi Moffic captures a primary contemporary pursuit - happiness - and refracts it through anecdotes, rabbinic wisdom and popular culture to remind us that that the path to happiness is right before us at all times. Its wisdom is like the prize inside of a box of crackerjacks - a simple pleasure."—Rabbi Lori Shapiro, The Open Temple
  • "A book about prayer, kindness, and happiness -- a perfect trilogy. Follow Rabbi Moffic's suggestions, and you will not only be a blessing in other people's lives, you will be a blessing in your own as well."
    Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Jewish Literacy, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal
  • "Want to know where to put your energy for a life that has maximal meaning, connection, and opportunities to grow as a person? Read THE HAPPINESS PRAYER. Rabbi Evan Moffic masterfully takes us on a powerful journey through the wisdom of our tradition and the complexities of the human heart. This happiness isn't about quick fixes and instant gratification--rather, it's the recipe for something much more long-lasting and sustaining."—Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in The Frustration, Boredom Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting
  • "The longer I live, and the more I'm faced with the inescapable reality of pain in life, the more I search for and surround myself with people who exude joy. Men and women who know how to dance in the rain. My friend, Rabbi Evan Moffic, is a shining example. It's impossible to be in a bad mood when I'm with him. And this book delivers that joyful spirit directly to you." —Michele Cushatt, author of I Am: A 60-day Journey To Knowing Who You Are Because of Who He is
  • "[T]he wisdom packed into THE HAPPINESS PRAYER could last you a lifetime."—Barbara Mahany, Chicago Tribune

On Sale
Sep 12, 2017
Page Count
208 pages
Center Street

Evan Moffic

About the Author

Evan Moffic leads Congregation Solel in suburban Chicago. A graduate of Stanford University, Rabbi Moffic was ordained as a rabbi in 2006. He speaks at book festivals, religious groups, and organizational gatherings across the country. Rabbi Moffic appears regularly on cable news stations as a commentator on religious events.

With his wife, Rabbi Arielle Moffic, he has counseled hundreds of individuals and married thousands of couples of all faiths. The Rabbis Moffic are the proud parents of two young children.

Learn more about this author